Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

London Bridge

This is not the London Bridge whose construction caused the problems for the church of St Saviour. That one was built by John Rennie in 1825, but by the 1960’s it was desperately in need of replacement. In 1967 Councillor Ivan Luckin had the bright idea of selling the bridge to help fund its replacement. Who would buy a bridge? Fans of Dragons Den will now imagine a Scottish accent loudly declaring “Ahm oot”. But as the great "Arfer" Daley would have said, there is always a punter if you look for them.

This time it was Robert P McCulloch, owner of McCulloch Oil, who purchased the bridge for Arizona. Hands up all those who believe that whatever was said to the contrary he thought he had purchased Tower Bridge. Anyway, in 1968 he paid $2,460,000 for it and put it back up in Lake Havas City, Arizona. There it spans a man-made canal and is the centrepiece of an English theme park. Incredibly it is Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction, and when number one spot is taken by the Grand Canyon you can’t get much better than that. I still think that Ivan Luckin puts “Del Boy” to shame.

While John Rennie’s bridge sits in retirement ain Arizona, what of its predecessors?

The first bridge would seem to have been a Roman military bridge built around AD 50. This would have been a wooden pontoon construction. The Britons built settlements at either end, the northern one being named Londinium. This early settlement was destroyed by Queen Boudicca and her chariots in AD 60, and then rebuilt by the Romans.

After the Romans left our shores the bridge seemed to be largely abandoned, with the river becoming a territorial boundary between the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. The next account of a bridge at London is a Saxon bridge put in place by Aethelred in 990. There then followed several centuries where the bridge would be up, then down, then built up again only to be down again, which probably gave rise to the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”.

The first of the destruction was by Prince Olaf of Norway, who tore it down as a means of isolating the Viking inhabitants in 1014. It was obviously quickly rebuilt because there is reference to it being an obstruction for King Cnut as he made his way up the Thames in 1016.

A great storm in 1091 and the bridge was down again. The bridge was rebuilt and then destroyed by fire in 1136. What happened in the next forty years is unclear, but in 1176 it was decided to build a new bridge with stone. This took thirty three years to complete, but by 1209 King John was the proud owner of the lowest crossing of the river. We have met John before, and if he could make a few groats out of it he would. John sold licences for people to run businesses on the bridge and it soon developed into a ramshackle affair of narrow shops and workshops crammed on to the bridge.

In 1212 there was a fire which caused severe damage at the Southwark end. Simultaneously there was another fire at the northern end, and many hundreds of people were trapped in the middle and perished.

The stone bridge existed for over 600 years, but it was rather like “Trigger’s Broom”*. Parts were continually falling away and had to be replaced. The bridge was a long series of small arches, which would have caused something of a barrier to the flowing waters. In fact there are estimates that there could have been as much as six feet difference between the upstream and downstream water levels, with dangerous rapids and currents that would pull away at the bridge supports.

* (“Trigger’s Broom”; In an episode of “Only Fools and Horses” council road-sweeper Trigger claims that he had used the same broom for 20 years, and then goes on to say that during that time it had been fitted with 17 new heads and 14 new handles.)

There were gateways at each end of the bridge, and the southern gateway, known as “Stone Gateway” was notorious for its grisly display of traitors’ heads. The traitor would have their head cut off, dipped in tar to make it resilient to the elements, and then displayed on a spike as a deterrent to others. The first head to be so displayed was that of William Wallace in 1305. The practice continued for 355 years, and among the most notable heads on display during this time were those of Jack Cade, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. King Charles II put a stop to this custom when he was restored to the monarchy in 1660.

By the time we reach 1722 traffic over the bridge was so bad that it could take up to an hour to cross the bridge. The narrow gaps between the shops and houses meant that it only needed one cart to break down and everything stopped. The Lord Mayor decreed that in order to speed up the traffic flow travellers going north must keep to the west side, and those travelling south must keep to the east. Thus we have the first road traffic act decreeing that in Britain we will drive on the left.

The next key stage was the removal of the shops and houses. This clearance began in 1758 and took four years to complete. The bridge was now clear again, but by the early 19th century it was obvious that the bridge needed replacing. River traffic was severely impeded and the crossing traffic was as heavy as ever, leading to costly maintenance. A competition was organised to design a new bridge, which was won by John Rennie, which brings us back to this bridge being sold to Arizona.

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